Common Thread: Rare Performance Turns from Famous Producers (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

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Climbing!, Mountain (1970, Windfall)

This power-rock outfit had just one major hit but it’s a classic-rock-radio staple: the chugging “Mississippi Queen,” taken from this album, which also  boasts the best-known version of the song “Theme for an Imaginary Western,” written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and his usual lyricist Pete Brown. It’s only natural that Mountain cover a song penned by Bruce – the band’s bassist/pianist/producer was Felix Pappalardi, who had served as the producer for the Cream albums Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye. Felix also produced the self-titled debut album from the Youngbloods, which would later spawn a Top Five hit – and an anthem to define a generation – in the plea-for-peace “Get Together.” Pappalardi would also go on to produce albums for Hot Tuna and Jesse Colin Young before his untimely passing in 1983. 

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Hurricane Smith, Hurricane Smith (1972, Capitol)

Norman “Hurricane” Smith’s lone U.S. hit as a performer, the easygoing Top Three hit “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?,” was written by his wife and first recorded by Mama Cass Elliot. [You can find the song on her album The Road Is No Place for a Lady.] But Smith is much more historically significant as the engineer behind all of the Beatles’ albums through Rubber Soul. [Smith’s first single as a recording artist, the #2 U.K. hit “Don’t Let It Die,” in fact, was written for John Lennon, but fellow producer Mickie Most reportedly heard Smith’s demo of the song and convinced him to keep it for himself and release it as a solo record.] Smith would later go on to try his hand as a producer; his credits include the Pretty Things’ critically-lauded S.F. Sorrow and several Barclay James Harvest albums, but he’s much more renowned as the producer behind the Pink Floyd albums Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, and Ummagumma.  

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Bags and Things, Dennis Lambert (1972, Dunhill)

This is the only album Lambert would ever release as a performer and it’s certainly not an easy album to find these days, but as a songwriter and producer, Lambert – usually in conjunction with his songwriting partner Brian Potter – was a force to be reckoned with throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. He both co-wrote and co-produced such hits as Glen Campbell’s “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”; the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” “Keeper of the Castle,” and “Are You Man Enough”; the Righteous Brothers’ “Rock and Roll Heaven”; the Original Caste’s “One Tin Soldier”; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds’ “Don’t Pull Your Love”; the Commodores’ “Nightshift”; and Tavares’ “It Only Takes a Minute.” He’s also co-produced Player’s “Baby Come Back” and “This Time I’m in It for Love,” Kenny Loggins’ “Nobody’s Fool,” and Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” and “I Live for Your Love”  and co-written Starship’s chart-topping “We Built This City” and the Grass Roots’ “Two Divided by Love.”

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Nobody’s Fool, Dan Penn (1973, Bell)

You may not recognize the name – this would be the only album Penn would release as a performer at all until the ‘90s, in fact – but Dan Penn is a Nashville legend, having co-written such classics as Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street,” James & Bobby Purify’s enduring oldies-radio classic “I’m Your Puppet,” the Sweet Inspirations’ “Sweet Inspiration,” and the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby.” Penn also produced the entirety of the Box Tops’ debut album, which spawned two major hits in the chart-topping “The Letter” and the Top 40 follow-up “Neon Rainbow.” This album wasn’t much of a hit commercially, but, notably, Alex Chilton would later go on to cover the title track.    

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White Horse, Michael Omartian (1974, Dunhill)

Easily his masterpiece as a recording artist and one of the most wildly influential Christian-rock albums ever released, White Horse is a surprisingly hip and inventive disc boasting unlikely cameos from the likes of Larry Carlton, the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder, and future Toto bassist David Hungate. Omartian sadly never crossed over into the mainstream as a recording artist and remains little known as a performer outside the world of Christian rock, but the former session keyboardist (who played with everyone from Loggins & Messina to Steely Dan during the early ‘70s and was also a founding member of Rhythm Heritage, who went all their way to Number One with their theme song to the TV series S.W.A.T.) is nonetheless an absolute giant in the world of pop music behind the scenes, serving as one of the most wildly in-demand producers of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He produced – among countless other hits – the first four albums from soft-rock superstar Christopher Cross; Alan O’Day’s chart-topping single “Undercover Angel”; Roger Voudouris’ only Top 40 hit, the criminally underrated pop nugget “Get Used to It” (which Omartian co-wrote); Peter Cetera’s Solitude/Solitaire (and its hit singles “Glory of Love” and “The Next Time I Fall”); Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money (the hit title track of which he co-wrote); Rod Stewart’s Camouflage (which spawned hits in “Some Guys Have All the Luck” and “Infatuation”); Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”; Jermaine Jackson’s Precious Moments; and, fittingly enough, Christian-artist-turned-pop-star Amy Grant’s massive crossover hits Heart in Motion and House of Love. Simply, this guy is good, and if you love pop music, chances are you’ve already got several albums in your collection bearing his name on the back cover.   

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Hang on in There Baby, Johnny Bristol (1974, MGM)

Technically, Bristol is a one-hit wonder; the Top Ten-charting title cut of this album remains Bristol’s lone Top 40 entry on the pop charts, though it did help earn him a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 1975. As a songwriter, on the other hand, Bristol has a vast and impressive resume, having worked in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as a Motown staff writer and co-penned such Motown hits as the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” (it’s Bristol, in fact, who serves as the uncredited male vocalist you hear on the song), Jr. Walker & the All-Stars’ timeless “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love),” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” (Bristol had already co-produced the pair’s hit duets “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love”), Edwin Starr’s “Twenty Five Miles,” Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Daddy Could Swear (I Declare),” and David Ruffin’s “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me),” to name just a few of his many hit credits for the label. This album’s title cut isn’t the only song to have scaled the charts: the Osmonds would score their last U.S. Top Ten hit – and their first and only U.K. Number One hit – with a cover of this disc’s “Love Me for a Reason.”

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Disco Baby, Van McCoy (1975, Avco)

As a performer, McCoy only ever had one Top 40 hit, but, boy, was it ever a monster – “The Hustle,” taken from this album, went all the way to Number One and became one of the defining 45s of the disco era. But you may not realize that he actually already had a lucrative career going for himself behind the scenes, having written and/or produced such hits as Barbara Lewis’ “Baby I’m Yours,” Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Giving Up,” the Presidents’ “5-10-15-20 (25 Years of Love),” the Marvelettes’ “When You’re Young and in Love,” Brenda and the Tabulations’ “Right on the Tip of My Tongue,” Chris Bartley’s “The Sweetest Side of Heaven,” Jackie Wilson’s final Top 40 hit “I Get the Sweetest Feeling,” and David Ruffin’s Top Ten solo smash “Walk Away from Love.” Sadly, McCoy would die prematurely at the age of 39 from a heart attack in 1979, the same year that a duo he had put together and mentored back in the ‘60s, Peaches and Herb, would score their first chart-topper with “Reunited.”